Behind an opportunistic defense and a big second half from James Palmer Jr., a depleted Nebraska men’s basketball team rallied for a 68-61 victory over Rutgers Wednesday night in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament at the United Center in Chicago.
Palmer scored 27 second-half points, including five points during a game-changing 15-0 run that turned a five-point Husker deficit with six minutes to play into a 61-51 lead with 1:30 remaining. Palmer finished with 34 points, tying his career high and finishing one point shy of the Big Ten Tournament scoring record.
With the win, Nebraska improved to 17-15 on the season. The Huskers advanced to take on No. 5 seed and 21st-ranked Maryland on Thursday. Tipoff for that game is set for 25 minutes after the first game of the day between Ohio State and Indiana, which is set for an 11:30 a.m. (Central) start. The Nebraska-Maryland game will be televised on the Big Ten Network, with the Husker Sports Network providing live radio coverage.
While Palmer’s career night stole the headlines, it was Nebraska’s defense that keyed the victory. The Huskers forced 22 Rutgers turnovers, a season high for the Scarlet Knights and the third-most turnovers by any team in Big Ten Tournament history. NU recorded 12 steals – its second-highest total of the year – and scored 24 points off Rutgers turnovers.
Nebraska's defense keyed big runs in both halves. NU trailed for nearly all of the first half before holding Rutgers to just one field goal over the final six minutes of the half, allowing the Huskers to go on a 12-2 run to take a lead into the locker room. The Scarlet Knights then led for much of the second half, but Nebraska held Rutgers scoreless for nearly six minutes, during which time the Huskers mounted their game-changing 15-0 run.
Palmer produced his third 30-point game of the season – and fourth of his career – by getting to the free throw line. He was 14-of-22 from the charity stripe, tying his career high in makes and setting a new career high in attempts. Palmer also set a Big Ten Tournament record with his 22 free throw attempts, while his 14 made free throws ranked second.
Besides Palmer, Glynn Watson Jr. had 11 points and five assists, while Isaiah Roby bounced back from a slow start, scoring eight of his 10 points in the second half while grabbing six rebounds and blocking four shots. Johnny Trueblood came up big off the bench for the second straight game, scoring three points and adding four steals, while the Huskers were plus-20 on the scoreboard during Trueblood’s career-high-tying 26 minutes.
Eugene Omoruyi led Rutgers (14-17) with 16 points, while Myles Johns had a double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds.
Nebraska relied on its defense to overcome a slow start. The Huskers missed seven of their first eight shots and trailed 8-2 five minutes into the game. Rutgers then made seven of its next 10 shots to build a 21-14 lead with 6:03 remaining in the half. But Nebraska held the Scarlet Knights to just one field goal the rest of the period, closing the half on a 12-4 run. The Huskers got baskets from four different players during a 9-0 run to grab their first lead at 23-21. Rutgers reclaimed the lead on a pair of free throws, but Palmer hit a layup with three seconds left in the half to send Nebraska into the locker room with a 26-25 advantage.
The Huskers shot just 34.5 percent in the first half, while Rutgers was 10-of-19 (52.6 percent) from the field. But Nebraska forced 11 first-half turnovers – leading to 11 points – and the Huskers’ perimeter defense did not allow a 3-pointer.
The start of the second half mirrored the start of the game. Rutgers hit four of its first six shots, scoring on its first four possessions and using a 9-1 run to grab a 34-27 lead. The Huskers missed their first four shots and didn’t make their first basket until five minutes into the period, when a Palmer layup trimmed the lead to 34-31.
The teams traded points over the next five minutes, with Nebraska getting as close as one and never trailing by more than five. Palmer kept the Huskers within striking distance, scoring 16 points in the first 10 minutes of the second half, accounting for all but two Husker points.
Nebraska twice pulled within one and was down by just a single point at the eight-minute mark before Rutgers took a five-point lead with four straight points. The Huskers then turned up the defensive intensity, holding the Scarlet Knights scoreless for nearly six minutes during a 15-0 run, with 13 of the points scored by either Palmer or Roby.
Roby scored the first five points of the run and hit a pair of free throws to give Nebraska a 52-51 lead four minutes to play, a lead the Huskers would not relinquish. Palmer then knocked down a 3-pointer, Roby added another basket and Palmer picked up a steal and a dunk. The Huskers retained possession following a flagrant foul and Watson made two free throws to cap the run and give Nebraska a 61-51 lead with 1:30 remaining.
Rutgers’ Geo Baker snapped the 15-0 run and ended the Scarlet Knights’ 5:43 scoreless drought to cut the lead to eight with 1:10 left. But Rutgers was never able to get closer than seven the rest of the way. Nebraska made 4-of-6 free throws in the final minute to prevent any chance at a Rutgers comeback.